30 Mar Engaging Hard Truth through Art
On Sunday I have the unenviable task of preaching about the torture and humiliation that Jesus endured as he neared his death on the cross. The purpose of crucifixion—Rome’s “go to” method of execution for would-be “messiahs”—wasn’t just to kill the victim. It was to cause the maximum amount of pain and suffering possible for the longest amount of time possible. Rome didn’t want to just kill you. They wanted to make state-sponsored death such an unbearable, hideous spectacle, crushing you in body, mind, soul, and spirit, that any sane person would think twice before crossing them. They perfected the “craft” of crucifixion, and it worked very well as a deterrent.
It is hard to look at Jesus as he suffers. When we really understand what was involved—the tearing of flesh, the asphyxiation, the blood loss and dehydration, the taunting and whipping, the nakedness—we feel a natural inclination to avert our eyes. It’s too painful to watch. We’re better able to take a furtive glance, maybe from the side, than to look Jesus full in the face.
When the truth is so horrifying that it threatens to completely overwhelm us, sometimes art can help us engage that truth in increments we can bear. Icons, music, sculpture, dance, and poetry (just to name a few) have all been used by the church through the ages to help us encounter the mystery of God’s self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Art communicates truth in non-verbal, subconscious ways. It allows our heart to meditate on what the mind cannot quite absorb.
One such piece of art is the centuries-old hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. The hymn originated in a series of Holy Week meditations focused on the parts of Christ’s crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, face. The text was originally written in Latin in the 12th or 13th century. The melody that we use today began appearing with this text in the mid-17th century. We truly join “the great cloud of witnesses” of the church universal every time we proclaim through this song what Christ did for us on the cross.
I invite you now to turn off your devices and set aside your work or other distractions in order to enter a holy space where these words may speak to your heart:
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down;
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown;
O sacred head, what glory, what bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee mine.
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favor, and grant to me thy grace.
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee.
Yours for the Kingdom,
*Image courtesy of Ann Voskamp